(cross-posted at The Naked Vine)
“I don’t think this is the second floor.”
The Sweet Partner in Crime and I were wandering the halls of a Cincinnati State classroom building, looking for The Summit – the restaurant that’s the centerpiece of the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State where we were going to meet our friends Mike and Shelley. Music and the laughter of students having some kind of event on a Saturday night (which was cool to see at a community college) filtered down the hall, but there was no sign of a restaurant.
We discovered that we’d accidentally pulled up a floor short, so we climbed one more flight of stairs and found a small sign pointing us down a hall past a closed-up snack bar area typical of what you’d find in just about any student union on any college campus in the U.S. The hall was lined on either side with darkened (but impressive looking) test kitchens. Around another corner and there we were.
So, what is The Summit? It’s a fine dining restaurant largely run and managed by the culinary arts students. As such, it’s located in the academic building on Cincinnati State’s campus where the students get their training. We arrived and were greeted with a smile by the manager, Donna Schmitt, who poured us our first round of Albariño while our table was prepared.
We were lucky enough to be seated at the “Chef’s Table” beside a large window opening into the kitchen, so we could see this eager bunch of twentysomethings honing their skills. Having spent decades in the world of the academy, I know how important it is for students to get real-world, hands-on experience. Even though I’d heard really good things about the place, I still had it in the back of my head that these were chefs-in-training. I wondered just how good a student-run high-end place could be.
I don’t wonder any more. It’s good. Real damned good.
What the place lacks in décor, it more than makes up for in service and quality. The Summit’s dining room is little more than a large open room with 30-40 tables. There’s not a lot in the way of fancy décor – but we were there to eat after all, not stare at pictures or admire faux paint. Our server (name) informed us that the menu was left intentionally vague so that patrons would ask questions so as to give the waitstaff practice in discussing the ins and outs of each course. (There was only one minor bobble in the service – we had to ask for water.)
We also had a visit from the chef de cuisine, Matt Winterrowd (a former compatriot of both Jean-Robert de Cavel and David Cook of DaVeed’s), at one point. He gave us a unique experience. Have you ever been dreamily devouring a course at a restaurant and asked about the details of the preparation? Most chefs I’ve met are more protective of their recipes than mama wolves are of their pups. When the chef came to the table, we asked him about the preparation of this insanely good morel mushroom appetizer that three of the four of us ordered. Instead of being vague, he basically walked us through the entire progress – starting with the two stocks (mushroom and chicken) that he used as a base for the sauce and moving step-by-step through the prep. (Needless to say, there will be some replication attempts as soon as I find some good ‘shrooms.)
So, what did we have? Three of the four of us had an appetizer of morel mushrooms creamed in an Idiazabal cheese sauce with shallots and fresh oregano. Orgasmic, off the charts good. The SPinC was the outlier with a very solid choice – probably the best soft shell crab I’d tasted outside of Baltimore. It was presented with a salsa of black beans, lime juice, avocado, and chilis.
For entrees, Shelley and the SPinC had sockeye salmon topped with a parsley-based pesto in a roasted tomato sauce with roasted fennel and potato gnocchi. The SPinC greeted her meal with reverent silence for several bites, which is far from the norm for her while diving into good food.
Mike had handmade pappardelle pasta in a cream sauce with prosciutto, parmesan, and baby peas. As simple as the dish was – the freshness of the ingredients made the entrée memorable. Mike said it was “about best tasting pasta” he’d ever had. I hold Mike’s cooking skills in high esteem, so this is serious praise.
As for myself, I tried the “teres major,” which was a cut of beef I’d never heard of, much less tried. It’s sometimes called the “shoulder tenderloin,” and isn’t used often. It’s from the front of the cow rather than the rear. It looks like a very small filet and it’s sliced thin. Served up next to a cauliflower and porcini mushroom mash, grilled asparagus, and an absolutely scrumptious sauce that I embarrassingly cannot remember, I certainly enjoyed myself.
The four of us split a delicious artisanal cheese plate for dessert. There was a Tuscan Pecorino, a “Humboldt Fog” goat cheese, Mahon (another hard cheese) from California, and Maytag Blue – a delicious stinky number from Iowa.
Additionally, the SPinC and I split a “black and blue” – a blackberry/blueberry cobbler with browned butter topping some handmade ice cream. Mike and Shelley had angel food cake stuffed with strawberries and thyme with a buttermilk icing. By this point, we were beyond stuffed, but we were floating on a culinary cloud of goodness. And the cost? For the entire meal plus wine (they’ve got a very solid wine list, too), we got out of there for under $70 a person, including tax and tip.
This was one of the best dining values that I’ve experienced in Cincinnati – but there were less than a dozen tables occupied over the course of the evening that we saw. My guess is that the setting – finding one’s way through a college campus to get to the restaurant – discourages a number of people. It shouldn’t.
If you’re someone who needs five-star décor to go with your food, then the Summit isn’t for you. If you’re someone who appreciates good food and would enjoy a relaxed evening with friends where conversation and food can be the centerpiece, then you really owe it to yourself to give this place a try. Go. Quiz the servers, ask a bunch of questions, and enjoy. I can almost guarantee you a good experience.